“[The chef] had been here nearly 20 years and he was doing things the same way the day he left as the day he started and he couldn’t see an issue with that.”
The above quote, included in a study by Australian researchers, sums up the experience of many food service staff when they first enter a facility, but some are making moves in the kitchen to change aged care dining.
Lead author Louisa Matwiejczyk from Flinders University said food service staff have a crucial role in supporting residents’ wellbeing. “Residents’ satisfaction with the food they receive is important to their wellbeing, particularly as they lose this autonomy when they move into residential care.”
Thirty senior-level chefs and one cook from 27 Victorian aged care facilities recently took part in a three-day education program, developed by the Maggie Beer Foundation, which aimed to give participants the knowledge and skills to shake up nutrition and the food experience in aged care.
Before starting the program, most staff said they believed their workplace needed to make changes and that they wanted to boost their menu management and food preparation skills, provide greater variety in menus, and learn new ideas for food modification and new recipes.
Participants took part in 10 sessions that were 60–90 minutes long and mostly discussion-based, with a mixture of hands-on activities and demonstrations in a kitchen setting.
They even got the chance to challenge themselves with a Masterchef-style task when asked to prepare modified textured foods using mystery ingredients.
In a follow up four months on from the program, the study team found that all participants were acting as change agents within their facilities.
All had incorporated recipes featured in the program into their existing menu and eight had introduced a new menu or had one ready to go.
They reported that they were using the recipes to varying degrees and with some modifications due to budget constraints, limitations to accessing ingredients, and because some ingredients were unfamiliar to residents.
Several participants reported that they had switched out pre-prepared processed foods for freshly prepared foods, such as fresh stock, fruit and vegetables and kitchen-garden herbs, while two chefs replaced almost all frozen foods with fresh.
Most participants also described strategies to increase the calorie content of the meals for underweight residents.
Just under half of the participants also made changes to the dining experience.
Some introduced themed dinners for residents after hearing peers share their own stories, while others reported structural changes to the dining room.
Simpler changes reported by food service staff included changes to the table settings, putting slow cookers in the dining room and adding flowers and music.
“With that little bit of music and an extra drink they are coming down and staying longer,” one participant said.
Two participants changed the timing of the kitchen operations so that food service staff could engage with the residents in the dining room during lunchtime and saw that residents were more likely to visit the area, stay there longer and provide feedback.
All food service staff leading change said they had support from management and other aged care staff to do so. To help this along, they decided to attend monthly staff meetings or present proposed menu changes and involve management in the menu decisions.
Still, they recommended inviting members of their organisation’s management to participate in the program and providing them with a dietetic session on residents’ nutritional needs.
The also identified a number of barriers to implementing change, such as costs, time constraints and food regulations.
One managing chef said: “The one nagging little thought in the back of my mind was that, yeah this is wonderful and we would love to do it, but where is the money to do it … the first moment they get the final results back they have been told ‘ooooh oooooh’ this is costing us money so you better scale it back.”
Participants said they wanted more advice in the education sessions on how to work within budget and food safety regulation constraints.
The program was co-facilitated by celebrity cook Maggie Beer as well as chefs known nationally for their work with older adults.
While the researchers noted that educational programs by themselves can be ineffectual and some learners struggle to put knowledge into practice, they added that novel to the program was its celebrity-led nature and its focus on peer-support and behavioural change.
As one participant summed up the experience: “I have been inspired by the whole thing. I did not necessarily learn new techniques, but I have learnt about the possibilities.”Do you have an idea for a story?
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